You are what you are
David Rogers-Smith is the star of La Cage Aux Folles which opens at the National Theatre this week. He spoke with Andrew Shaw.
La Cage Aux Folles (The Birdcage) began life in 1973 as a French play. In 1983, it was adapted into a musical written by Jerry Herman, book by Harvey Fierstein; it’s also been turned into a French movie and a Hollywood film (The Birdcage) starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. You should know the Act 1 finale from the musical: ‘I Am What I Am’. If you don’t, hand in your gay ID and uniform at the exit.
The musical tells the story of Georges, a nightclub owner in St Tropez, and his partner, Albin, who is also Zaza, the club’s star drag queen. When Georges’ son, Jean-Michel, announces he is going to marry Anne Dendon, the daughter of a right-wing politician, Jean-Michel convinces Georges to make some lifestyle changes – including hiding the flamboyant Albin from his homophobic in-laws-to-be.
The part of Albin requires treading a fine line between pathos and drama queen – a challenge David Rogers-Smith relishes. “I get the big number!” he exclaims of ‘I Am What I Am’, the song whose message was taken up by gay men everywhere in the Seventies. But like many songs taken out of context ('Send in the Clowns', 'La Donna è Mobile') the true impact of ‘I Am What I Am’ comes from its context in the dramatic action on stage.
“My character is basically being told, ‘Don’t be who you are! What you are is wrong!’ and it’s like a knife through the heart for him. So it has to be played extremely truthfully and I love it, I’m centre stage in the spot.” He laughs: “Where I belong!”
“They’re supposed to be the ones who love him best, but what they do is foul. But [Albin] says, ‘The show must go on!’ So he goes on stage and then has a breakdown in front of that audience at La Cage Aux Folles, The Birdcage.”
Although he admires the work of Nathan Lane in the Hollywood film, The Birdcage, Rogers-Smith says a problem with the film is we don’t get to see Albin perform on stage. The musical brings together the dialogue and the music.
“This is an actor’s wet dream – forgive the language – because he is comedic,” Rogers-Smith says. “You can very easily laugh at him, that’s not hard, because he is a maturing guy wearing a dress on stage for people’s entertainment. He is camp, he is histrionic – a diva and that’s easy to laugh at. But he’s still in there, he’s still a human being. He could not be more loyal to those he loves, and he is betrayed by them.”
Albin is a drag queen of the old school – it’s not about “realness”, it’s about having talent and being an entertainer. Rogers-Smith remembers going to see the Sydney drag show spectacular Les Girls with his parents in the... He stops short of supplying the decade – “I’m not going to give my age away!” He says in those days people came in to the city from the suburbs and the country to see the drag show, be entertained and have a laugh.
But now that we’re in another era, almost thirty years on from when the musical was written, as we lobby for equal marriage rights, is the storyline of staying in the closet so as not to upset the family apple cart too dated to take seriously?
“No, I don’t think it is dated,” Rogers-Smith says. “The son [Jean-Michel] is the one who says to his father you can’t be with Albin around my parents. He convinces his father to shove me aside.
“How? That’s the fine line, isn’t it? Albin has to be silly enough that the audience can go a bit with Jean-Michel. But it’s musical theatre, so of course he can convince his father to do what he wants: he’s got a song!"
Rogers-Smith says the reason the son wants to keep his parents’ sexuality a secret is still with us: prejudice. “I mean, I signed the petition and sent emails to my representative about equal marriage,” he recalls. “I got these awful form letters back from conservative politicians saying marriage is between a man and a woman. So, is the story dated? Hell no!”
Rogers-Smith says he’s “been on the Nash” – the stage at the National Theatre – many times, but never playing a romantic part opposite John O’May, who plays Albin’s partner, Georges.
“John O’May and I are old mates,” Rogers-Smith says. “We did that last Phantom tour together for years. So we’re having so much fun with it. I was in a rehearsal in a cruddy old hall and had this out of body experience because there’s John O’May – he’s played in Evita opposite Patti LuPone, for God’s sake – he’s a career and a half this man. And there he is singing a love song to me... It was so intimate... and I’ve been on stage with him many times. We’ve been rivals but we’ve never been lovers. I had a moment.”
In La Cage, ultimately the son realises his mistake; that he has behaved in an appalling way to the man who loves him, as Rogers-Smith relates: “He says, I want to make a formal apology and make up for everything I’ve done and I beg your forgiveness. And the right wing politician says, 'Well, I don’t accept your apology'; and Jean-Michel says it’s not to you I apologise.
"Then he acknowledges that Albin is who Albin is – his mother, and someone who has only ever had his best interests at heart. You are what you are – and that’s okay.”
La Cage Aux Folles, performing with the Melbourne Theatre Orchestra, National Theatre, Carlisle Street, St Kilda, March 16 - 24, 2012. Bookings: nationaltheatre.com or (03) 9525 4611.
IMAGE: David Rogers-Smith as Albin/Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles. Photo: Gavin D Andrew